How To Find A Technical Co-Founder

“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder but nobody wants to lift no heavy ass weights,” — Ronnie Coleman, 7-time Mr. Olympia

A non-technical person wants to do a tech startup to build a mobile application that does xyz – but – this “Idea Person” can’t find a technical co-founder.  They eventually give up.

“There’s just not enough programmers!” — Every Idea Person In History

Uh, no.  The majority of Idea People are sending all the wrong signals to a potential CTO for their startup.  They’re like the guy who shows up at the bar unshaven in ratty cargo shorts and expects the women to flock to him.  Programmers are the hot girls at the club and they have their pick on who they want to dance with.

Fear not, Idea Person, all is not lost.  I have seen a few people be successful in attracting a technical co-founder. They transform themselves from Idea Person to Business Person With a Clue. Here’s how they do it:

1) They’re Enjoyable.  They have a welcoming personality.  They’re fun.  They display leadership characteristics.  They’re the type of person with whom you can have brutally honest discussions — and still hug it out afterwards. Your personality sucks? That takes practice and study. Start with a classic.

2) They Bring Lots Besides An Idea.  Here’s a secret: programmers have ideas too!  Ideas are freaking easy.  The successful Idea People bring other things to the table such as access to funding, credibility and salesmanship*, knowing how to organize a business for scale, and understand how to hire/fire people.  They may know about specific industries, can think strategically, and have communication skills.  As one programmer friend told me:

“Programmers are attracted to people who can do shit.”**

The ways to learn this stuff quickly:  mentors, asking lots of questions and reading.

3) They Understand Product Scope.  This means they understand the customer’s problem, the underlying features and have an understanding how to build the product.  Sadly, most Idea People have never typed “git” or done a basic “Hello World” application.  That’s a terrible signal:  “So, I’m the CTO and not only will I be up at 3am fixing bugs, you’ll be asleep AND unable to understand what’s going on?”  One friend said:

“In my previous life as a marketer I told my programmer to use ‘Hadoop, Redis, MonogDB, an MVC framework, Backbone.js, Rackspace cloud servers, Node.js’, that was in 2011 (when most of these technologies were bleeding-edge and hadn’t matured let alone did any of them make sense working together).”

The solution:  If you’re an Idea Person, lock yourself in a room for a couple of months and teach yourself the basics of the relevant technologies.  For example, if you’re doing a web app, learn Ruby on Rails.  Build something.  It’s the only way to show you’re serious.  You aren’t going to become a programming god but that’s not necessary.  You just need to know enough that you’ll be able to make good decisions and intelligently discuss issues.

4) They Understand Project Scope.  Once they understand the underlying technical concepts (from point #3), the successful Idea Guys know the roles and tasks in application development.  What is QA?  A/B testing?  Back end versus front end?  Designer versus graphic designer?  Who does what? How hard is each role?  AWS is down, what do we do?!

You learn these the same way: by doing and reading.  Doing is not as hard as you think.  Find something to volunteer on.  Pick any one of the bazillion open-source projects out there and try to help.

There’s a common theme here:  If someone wants a Scotty to their Captain Kirk, Idea People have to put down the “idea generator” for a while and invest in growing their skills to go from Idea Person to the Business Person with a clue.  These things all need significant investment from an Idea Person beyond an “awesome” idea.  They have to spend their time studying the tech startup game and learning the underlying technologies just as they expect their technical co-founder to have spent years honing their programming chops.  If not, well, they have little chance of convincing a potential co-founder that they’re the right choice.

(Thanks to Richard Ortega, Jason Straughan, Tex Morgan, Clint Watson and Matthew Egan for reading drafts of this blog post.)

(EDIT – the Hacker News discussion of this post is here: )

  • One tech friend said about good Business People: "They can sell. Folks with technical chops are not always the social butterflies of the world.  A great idea combined with a great technical solution will not sell itself.  Someone has to make it rain." * To quote further from a technical co-founder friend of mine: "Essentially programmers are attracted to people who can DO shit. Whether that's building, selling, or raising funds. If all you can contribute is advice, random ass strategy, and some insight you read from a book rather than personal experiences GTFO." One programmer friend noted when reading this paragraph: Don't exaggerate skills.  Good Business Persons know what they know and are comfortable with that.  Don't bullshit and definitely don't play technical world roulette (e.g. "Should we github our relational UI deployment constructor?"). ** A late comment from another friend: "don't even bring up the words "NDA" as the idea person. I cringe every time someone finds out I'm a programmer and pulls me aside with their "great idea" for the next big iphone app." Made me smile to hear that one.

Michael Girdley